Founding “Fathers” of International Law: Recognizing Christine de Pizan

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Editor’s Note:  This post was first published by the author in French in the Galerie des internationalistes francophones (Gallery of French-Speaking Internationalists) on the website of the French Society for International Law (SFDI).  We are particularly grateful that Professor Latty’s translated version will reach the EJIL:Talk! readership around the world.

At the start of 2019 and the year long campaign designed around International Women’s Day on 8 March 2019, it may be particularly apt for the readers of EJIL: Talk! to consider Christine de Pizan (around 1365 – around 1430), a medieval woman of letters, as one of the founders of international law – even if somewhat surprising for several reasons.  One is the anachronism attached to this qualification, the invention of the word “international” attributed to Bentham in 1780 being much later than Pizan’s passage on earth. At that time, only a few States, in the contemporary sense of the term, had taken shape, while the idea of a legal system organizing their relations was still in limbo. Moreover, Pizan is not a woman of law but an intellectual “all-rounder”. Above all, she has been completely ignored by internationalist scholars – with the notable exception of the Belgian Ernest Nys who devoted several studies to her work, or rare authors such as Anzilotti who mentioned her contribution in his Corso di diritto internazionale (vol. I, transl. G. Gidel, Sirey, 1929). She has since disappeared again from the teachings of the most highly qualified publicists, whereas since the end of the 20thcentury, the rediscovery of her work has been the subject of extensive study in other fields of human and social sciences.

(Photo source here.)

However, her Livre des faits d’armes et de chevalerie (The Book of Deeds of Arms and of Chivalry) is one of the first known texts on the law of war. This is why a legal historian specializing in the status of women once presented Pizan not without emphasis as the “mother of international law” (M. T. Guerra Medici, « The Mother of International Law: Christine de Pisan », Parliaments, Estates and Representation, vol. 19, 1999, n° 1,pp. 15-22), thus supplanting a Grotius whose paternity was already highly doubtful (Ch. Leben, « Grotius : père du droit international », in Dictionnaire des idées reçues en droit international, Paris, Pedone, 2017, pp. 279-285). In any case, in the pantheon of the founding “fathers” of international law, haunted by men, Pizan should occupy a special place: she is not only the first woman to have written about “international” law; she is one of its very first known authors, even before Vitoria, Gentili or Suarez.

Woman of letters and feminist pioneer

Daughter of a Bologna astrologist physicist, Christine de Pizan was born in 1364 or 1365 in Venice. Her father having been invited to the Court by Charles V, she joined the Kingdom of France at the age of five where she was educated. Married at fifteen, she was widowed at twenty-five. She began writing to support herself and her family, including her three children. Her manuscripts – the printing press was invented some twenty years after her death – were distributed with great success to the princes and patrons of the time, many of whom were her protectors. She is probably the first woman to have lived by her pen.

Her work, abundant and varied, “contains charming poems as well as austere philosophical and historical treatises” (S. Solente, « Christine de Pisan », Histoire littéraire de la France, n° 40, 1969, p. 14). Contemporary of Joan of Arc, she dedicated a poem to her in 1429. She is also a renowned letter writer. Her participation in the debate on the Roman de la Rose (The Romance of the Rose), a famous poem of the 13thcentury, in refutation of Jean de Meung’s misogynistic discourse, has, according to some contemporary analyses, laid the foundations for feminism. Among her best-known works, La Cité des dames(The Book of the City of Ladies, 1405) is an allegorical account of a city inhabited exclusively by great women of the past and present, which itself is sometimes presented as one of the first feminist works of literature. It is therefore not surprising that Pizan, leaving aside “cattails, spinning and household duties” (The Book of Deeds…, Part 1, I) took up subjects perceived then – and still today… – as “male”: war and weapons.

The origins of the law of war

The Book of Facts of Arms and Chivalry (1410), offered to the Duke of Berry, is a war manual, intended primarily for those who make it. Several passages are taken directly from previous writings on these issues, those of the Romans Vegetius and Frontinus, the Tractatus de belloby the Bolognese lawyer Legnano, but above all L’arbre des batailles(The Tree of Battles) by Honoré Bouvet (or Bonet), with whom she stages herself in the last two parts of the book, through a master to disciple dialogue on the rights pertaining the matter of arms “according to customary law and to written law” (Part 3, II).

The Book combines the art of war (strategy, qualities required for combatants, war techniques, etc.) with the rules applicable to this matter, jus ad bellum and jus in bello.

The first part of The Book opens with remarks relating to “just war”. Pizan writes that wars waged for a just cause are authorized by God (Part 1, II). Only “sovereign princes” or other “rightfully heads of temporal jurisdictions” have the right to undertake them (ibid., III). She identifies five grounds for wars, three of which “rest on law”: “to maintain law and justice” (for example, to defend the Church, or help an ally or vassal); “to counteract evildoers who befoul, injure, and oppress the land and the people”; and “to recover lands, lordships and other things stolen or usurped for an unjust cause”. In addition to these, two other grounds rest “on will”: “to avenge any loss or damage incurred”; and “to conquer and take over foreign lands or lordships” (ibid., IV). Dialogue with Honoré Bouvet is also an opportunity to establish that the Emperor does not have the right to wage war against the Pope (Part 3, II), unlike the latter who can engage in arms against the former (ibid., III); or that the sovereign who leads a “just” war has the right of innocent passage through foreign territories, without having to provide hostages (ibid., XI).

Many questions relating to the jus in bello of the time are also addressed in the exchange between Pizan and Bouvet. It is established, for example, that certain tricks are prohibited (ibid., XIII), or that according to the customs of war, prisoners must be spared and even protected. In this respect, if ransom is allowed, particularly in wars between nations, it must not be excessive (ibid., XIV). Other issues that are reflected in contemporary international law are addressed in The Book, such as the inviolability of ambassadors (ibid., XXII), the exception of non-performance of treaties (Part 4, IV) or reprisals (ibid., VI).

Premises of international law

Pizan draws from various sources these norms that govern war, whether it occurs between nations or between lords. If civil law is occasionally called upon (for example, to establish that the booty must go to the sovereign who paid the people in arms – Part 3, XV), the mobilization of divine or canonical law, moral, precedents, and especially the “customs of war”, prefigures a “public international law” whose emancipation from natural law and systematization will wait a long time.

The Book of Facts of Arms and Chivalry testifies in any case that, with regard to the law of war, which is “the core of international law”, “medieval thought is far from having been as sterile as we commonly imagine it” (E. Nys, « Honoré Bonet et Christine de Pisan », Revue de droit international et de législation comparée, t. XIV, 1882, p. 451). It is also in this respect that Christine de Pizan’s teachings deserves to be pulled out of internationalist oblivion.

Nota bene:

There are 25 manuscripts of the Livre des faits d’armes et de chevalerie. The two most important, because they were copied under the control of Christine de Pizan to offer them to patrons, are the following:

Livre de faits d’armes et de chevalerie, Paris, BnF, fr. 603, feuillets 1-80

Livre de faits d’armes et de chevalerie, Bruxelles, KBR, 10476

The Livre has been translated into modern English: Ch. de Pizan, The Book of Deeds of Arms and of Chivalry, University Park, The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1999

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Marco Longobardo says

January 15, 2019

How fascinating! Thank you for this account, Prof. Latty!

Diane Marie Amann says

January 15, 2019

Having read this when it first appeared en français, delighted to see it translated for a wider audience. A figure well worth adding to international law pantheon. Grands mercis, Prof. Latty.

Nienke Grossman says

January 15, 2019

Very interesting to learn about this founding mother's contributions! Merci beaucoup!

Franck Latty says

January 16, 2019

Marco, Diane, Nienke: Many thank for your positive feedback.